It was 10am on a cool breezy day in the mountainous region of northern Vietnam. I was taking part in a reality TV show. There was myself, the producer, two cameramen, and two other crew members. We were there visiting a poor ethnic minority girl, who despite being born into tough circumstances had persevered and was being recognised for her academic accomplishments. I would be recalling her life and at the end of the show presenting her with a scholarship.
With everything prearranged with local authorities, it was supposed to be a quick two-day trip. However, understanding the nature of Vietnam I knew that nothing here is ever quick or easy. Unfortunately for me, my suspicions were soon vindicated. The team had forgotten to account for the recovery time needed after consuming excessive amounts of beer and alcohol.
Last year it was estimated that Vietnam consumed 3.4 billion litres of beer. Couple that with people’s fondness for rice wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages and you soon discover one of Vietnam’s favourite pastimes. But drinking here isn’t just a pastime; in many ways it has become an integral part of life. Business deals are often negotiated and completed over drinks. Two people cannot be true friends if they haven’t crossed the threshold of drunken stupor at least several times.
There’s also a popular belief that drinking alcohol daily is beneficial. In fact many people here have come to believe that there are health benefits associated with drinking. I’ve actually engaged in intense debates and arguments about the lack of scientific studies showing any indications of a correlation and inversely the multitude of research showing the dangers of alcohol, but to no avail.
Regardless, this belief has compelled Vietnamese to become quite creative in concocting alcohol drinks designed to ‘help’ people. For example, drinking snake bile or blood mixed in alcohol from a freshly killed snake is supposed to help boost men’s fertility. Rượu thuốc Bắc, which consists of an assortment of herbs marinated in alcohol, also boasts ‘medicinal benefits’ while supposedly not making you intoxicated. A word to the wise - any alcoholic beverage will get you intoxicated if you drink enough. Vietnamese people also marinate many other plants and animals in alcohol. Some of the more popular ones include ‘rượu ba kích’ (Indian mulberry), ‘rượu sâm’ (ginseng), ‘rượu cá ngựa’ (seahorse), and ‘rượu chim sẻ’ (sparrow).
For the occasional drinker such as myself, Vietnam is not the ideal place to live. I often find myself being encouraged and pushed into drinking copious amount of alcohol. ‘If you’re not drunk you can’t go home,’ is what I’m often told, which oddly reminds me of my college days. It seems as if many Vietnamese are permanently stuck in the college phase of binge drinking. It can be quite frustrating, particularly when it’s too early in the day or when you’d rather be sober to focus on finishing work.
Subsequently, my anecdote above ended how you may imagine. The local people told us to drink large amounts of their strong moonshine or they wouldn’t work with us. The two-day trip turned into three, which quickly became four and then, inevitably, five. Needless to say, beer and alcohol consumption is becoming a growing problem, as evidenced by the number of alcohol-related traffic accidents, low labour productivity, and alcoholism.
Still, you shouldn’t pass up on the chance to break bread and share wine with a Vietnamese person. ‘Nhậu’, or drinking with a Vietnamese, can be a very enjoyable and entertaining experience consisting of masterful storytelling, impromptu songs, and overall positive vibes. Drinking in Vietnam adds colour and spice to an otherwise dull meal or occasion. It easily extends a meal or other occasion for hours and drinking in Vietnam can be an all-day affair.
For better or worse, drinking is a big part of Vietnamese culture. Whether its 10am or 10pm, there’s no such thing as too early or too late or even too drunk to drink. So make sure you fill up on carbs and drink lots of water. So cheers, or as the Vietnamese say: ‘một, hai, ba, vô!’